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Christopher Bell’s first laps in Xfinity car a ‘dream come true’

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CONCORD, N.C – The No. 18 has a long, storied history with Joe Gibbs Racing, dating back to the team’s first win in the 1993 Daytona 500.

The numeral has been associated with champions Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch. But for about seven hours Tuesday, the number belonged to Christopher Bell.

The 22-year-old driver made his first laps in a Xfinity Series car as part of a series test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The 2016 Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year called the experience of driving for JGR “a dream come true.”

As part of a joint test day with the Truck Series, Bell’s first spin in the car took place a day after the team announced he would drive in seven Xfinity races this year, beginning May 27 at Charlotte.

“I’d never would have foreseen myself running in the Xfinity Series,” Bell told NBC Sports and the Performance Motorsports Network shortly after exiting the car after a run. “So to be able to do it for Joe Gibbs is very special.”

In the morning session of the seven-hour test, Bell logged 71 laps around the 1.5-mile track. The only other driver to complete more was rookie Cole Custer with 83. Bell was 15th fastest at 180.747 mph.

“It reminds me more of the Super Late Model stuff, I think that’s the biggest difference,” said Bell of his first impressions of the Xfinity car compared to the Truck Series. “They’re a lot more lively, a lot more responsive than the trucks. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

Bell has three wins in the Truck Series, including last March at Atlanta. Last season he made the championship four and was the only driver in it born after 1980.

The Oklahoma native said his time in the car Tuesday was about “having fun” and “getting laps.”

“Obviously, JGR is one of the best teams around,” Bell said. “As far as car-wise, I don’t think there’s too much to learn out here. It’s just me getting the hang of it.”

David Ragan hopes some of Pocono playoff magic rubs off on him

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No one has to tell David Ragan how Pocono Raceway has played a significant role in the playoff hopes of several drivers the last two seasons.

Kurt Busch qualified for last season’s playoffs when he earned his only win of 2016 at the 2.5-mile track in June.

Pocono also provided the golden ticket for Chris Buescher, who won last season’s rain-shortened race in August, qualifying him for the playoffs. It was also Buescher’s first career Cup victory.

Two months ago at Pocono, Ryan Blaney earned his first career NASCAR Cup victory, which also qualified him for the playoffs.

Now, with just four playoff slots, Ragan hopes Sunday’s Overton’s 400 at Pocono will pave the way to victory and his own playoff berth.

Admittedly, it’s been a difficult season for the Unadilla, Georgia native. He’s managed just two top-10 finishes in the first 20 races for Front Row Motorsports: 10th at Talladega and sixth earlier this month at Daytona.

Ragan is 29th in the Cup standings. He has an average start of 29.8 and an average finish of 25.0, along with three DNFs.

He also has never made NASCAR Cup’s playoffs.

With six races remaining in the regular season to qualify for the playoffs, Ragan knows time and chances are both running out. Given how Pocono has been the gateway for drivers like Buescher and Blaney to make the playoffs, Ragan is hoping to add his name to that list.

“We’re starting to wind down the regular season before the playoffs start,” Ragan said. “So, if you can steal a win somehow, that can set you up for the playoffs. That would be huge for us and a big deal for our partners at Overton’s.”

Ragan finished 25th last month at Pocono, one lap off the lead lap. In 21 career starts there, Ragan has one top-10 finish (fifth in the 2008 mid-summer).

In the 10 races since Talladega, Ragan has struggled, posting three finishes of 30th or worse and five other finishes between 20th and 29th.

Still, he’s trying to maintain a positive attitude heading into this weekend that he can pull off an upset.

“It’s fun to go back after we were just there a few weeks ago,” Ragan said. “(The 25th-place finish is) still fresh in our minds, and we know some things that we can improve on.”

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NASCAR America live 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Suarez from NASCAR Hall; new homes for Blaney, Menard

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET from the NASCAR Hall of Fame with special guest Daniel Suarez.

Marty Snider hosts, and he’ll be joined by analysts Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.

On today’s show:

· Daniel Suarez will join us live and will talk about his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series, his racing development over the years starting in his native Monterrey, Mexico, coming to the U.S. to race, winning the Xfinity Series championship last season and his hopes for both the remainder of this season as well as the future.

· As we do each Wednesday, we’ll ask Daniel questions straight from you – the fans! Tweet your questions for Daniel to @NASCARonNBC, using the hashtag #AskDaniel.

· It’s also been a busy news day in the NASCAR world. It was announced earlier today that Ryan Blaney will move from Wood Brothers Racing to a third Team Penske NASCAR Cup ride in 2018. Also, Paul Menard will move from Richard Childress Racing to replace Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing. We’ll hear Blaney’s thoughts on the big news, and discuss the state of NASCAR’s ongoing youth movement.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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Xfinity crew chief Chris Gabehart penalized $5,000 for loose lug nut at Indy

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NASCAR has issued one penalty resulting from last weekend’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing, was fined $5,000 on Wednesday.

Gabehart was penalized for violating Sections 10.4 and 10.9 of the NASCAR Rule Book covering Tires and Wheels: Lug nut(s) not properly installed at the conclusion of the Lilly Diabetes 250.

There were no other penalties related to last weekend’s Xfinity or NASCAR Cup races in Indianapolis or the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.